Why Christ is all we need - Romans 3:21-31

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 28th October 2001.

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The trial had lasted for eighteen days. From the moment the judge entered the courtroom the public gallery had been packed to overflowing. In the dock stood a man and a woman in their early thirties facing at least one count of murder. The evidence had been overwhelming and conclusive. Brought up in a nice respectable middle-class home, this brother and sister had been captivated while at university by the political idealism of Bakunin- more popularly known as anarchism. And so they committed themselves to the lifelong struggle of overthrowing ‘the system’ and using whatever was necessary to achieve it, after all the ends justified the means, so they reasoned, even if those means involved cold blooded murder. And it was a murder that shocked the nation, the vicious killing of a bright young man, also in his early thirties, destined, so it was said, to become the future leader of the country.

The jury returned their unanimous verdict of guilty after only 15 minutes deliberation. On the bench sat Chief Justice Scott one of the finest legal minds at the High Court. Before passing sentence the Judge asked if the defendants had anything to say. They could have protested that it was all necessary, an inevitable part of the struggle in the great class war. They could have pleaded mitigating circumstances, that they were but a product of their upbringing, their education, maybe even a chemical imbalance of the brain. But they didn't. They were guilty and they knew it. It would take something of a miracle for their to be any sentence but life imprisonment-the forfeiting of personal freedom while they were able to draw breath because of the heinous crime they had committed.

According to Paul’s argument in the first two and half chapters of Romans who is the man and woman in the dock? It is you and I. Who is the judge ready to pronounce sentence? It is God. For not only have we violated his laws and hurt each other in the process, not necessarily having committed murder with a gun, but assassinated with a word or thought, but we have offended God personally, drawing from him the righteous anger which only a holy God can feel towards those who abuse him and his world and hurt themselves in the process. The future for us looks bleak-to put it mildly. So is there any hope, any good news which we can receive which might mean pardon, forgiveness and freedom? Is there a ‘but’ which will come to our aid at the last minute so that we will not have to stand before God waiting to hear the words of judgement pronounced- life imprisonment?

Well, Paul says, yes there is- v 21 ‘ But now’ Something has happened of such epoch making proportions that things can never be the same again. It is an event which cuts across time itself, dividing BC from AD, which draws a line through our Bible marking the Old Testament from the New. What is that something? Paul tells us ‘a righteousness from God’. And when the Bible speaks of the righteousness of God it could mean one or a combination of three things. First, there is God’s righteousness which is expressed in punishing wrongdoing. It is the meeting out of justice-righteousness, condemning sin. Secondly, the God who is said to act righteously is the God who acts on behalf of those who cannot help themselves- the widow, the orphan, the refugee. God is the one who comes to their aid. But thirdly, the righteousness of God is something he bestows upon someone, a declaration by a judge that so and so is in a right relationship with himself-negatively that they are acquitted with no charges to answer and positively to be rightly related to God-in short- his friend. Now says Paul in v 21 , all the time the Old Testament has been preparing us for this, there have been prophecies to this effect, what was the Old sacrificial system about but God’s provision by which guilty Israelites could be forgiven by the shedding of blood. But now, God has done something where his righteousness has been revealed to the whole human race and for the whole human race irrespective of colour, class or creed, in a way which is simply breathtaking and heart rending. We all have the same problem and we all have need the same solution as Paul puts it in v 22 ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.’ God shows himself to be absolutely righteous at the cross in every respect. He shows himself righteous in punishing sin-as Paul points out in v 25b-26, he passed over former sins, that is, not carrying out the final judgement they deserved, but in Jesus being punished for our sins in our place, he demonstrates his justice. He shows his righteousness in the second sense that those who cannot save themselves because they are so bad or not good enough or religious enough, he comes to their aid, like a lifeguard pulling out a drowning man from the lake. And thirdly, he declares anyone who puts their trust in him to be in a right relationship, friends- v 24 ‘they are justified-made right- freely by his grace through the redemption-or rescue-which is in Christ Jesus.’

But you say how? If my good works can’t save me. If my religion can’t save me, how can the death of someone on a Roman gallows some 2000 years ago possibly save me? What does that death do which my churchgoing and working for charity can’t do? Well Paul tells us in v25 ‘God presented him (that is his own Son, the God-man Christ Jesus) as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.’ Now what is that all about? How does that show, as the Bible claims to show, God’s righteous love, so that God can still be holy in showing anger towards sin and yet mercy and love towards the sinner?

Think of it like this: Bill and Susan are walking hand in hand along the beach. Bill turns to her and says ‘Susan I love you.’ What does he mean? He could mean lots of things but at least it means something like this: ‘You eyes transfix me. Your smile reduces me to a quivering wreck. Your personality is so wonderful that I want to spend the rest of my life with you, I want to marry you.’ He doesn't mean: ‘Susan, quite frankly your manners are grotesque. Your halitosis would frighten an unwashed herd of garlic -eating elephants. Your knobbly knees would put a camel to shame and your personality is a mix between Genghis Kahn and Attila the Hun.’ In other words when we proclaim we love someone we are in some measure saying something about their loveliness.

Now when God says to us: ‘ I love you’ what does he mean? Is he saying, ‘You people are so wonderful I can’t manage to live without you. Your smile transfixes me, your education is so brilliant and your manners so charming I am thrilled to the depths of my being because of you.’ Is that what he is saying? Hardly, from what we have been looking at so far in this letter.

No, you see, God’s love for us is self-generating, it is not drawn from him because of who we are or what we are like. It is his anger which is drawn out in that way. No God’s love flows from him because of who he is. From all eternity God is love, that is the kind of God he is. As human beings we find it difficult to imagine anger and love for someone co-existing together at the same time. The nearest we get to it is as parents where we are angry with what a child has done, but deep down we know we will stick by them. But God stands over us in his righteous anger because he is holy and at the same time stands over us in his love because he is love.

So morally speaking , God says to us, ‘ You are the people of halitosis, the horrible personality ,the knobbly knees like a camel, but how do I love you, how my heart just reaches out to you because I am that kind of God. And I am not going to simply tell you how much I love you, I am going to show you. I am going to do something which makes the creation of the universe out of nothing appear to be mere child’s play in comparison, for I am going to deal with your greatest need and my greatest problem -your sin which kindles my righteous anger towards you.

Now let me explain that a bit more for it is very important. After what we have been hearing we might think that the problem which need overcoming is really all on our side- we need forgiving. To some extent, that, of course, is true. But God as it were has a dilemma to overcome on his side first of all in order for us to receive his forgiveness. The dilemma is this: On the one hand, because he is love he longs for us to enter into a personal relationship with him, one which is open and rich, with no barriers impeding that relationship, so we can experience the depths of his Fatherly care. But on the other hand, he is the moral ruler of the universe, he is angry and that righteous desire for justice, the punishment of sin must be met, other wise God would simply cease to be God. So how can God both at one and the same time satisfy his righteous demand that justice be done and seen to be done in punishing sin and satisfy the demand of his heart that we be forgiven in such a way that justice is not compromised, showing that right and wrong do matter in his universe? What is the way out of the dilemma? That is the genius of the cross-now hold on to your seats, Paul says it happened in this way : Christ was presented as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, so that as he says in v 26 he demonstrates his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

What is this atoning sacrifice, or literally, propitiation? Well, to make someone propitious towards us is to turn away their anger from us and so make them well disposed towards us, enabled to express their full kindness unimpaired. Now in a crude and shameful way this is what husbands do with their wives a lot of the time. It is the wife’s birthday and being from Mars the husband is no great shakes on dates ,so what has he done, but forgot. Not good. So, he simply looks up in puzzled bewilderment as the breakfast cereal is slammed down in front of him with a frosty, ‘Its a good job that at least I don’t forget your breakfast.’ And it is only as he is coming home from work that the penny drops, and so he nips round to the florist and gets the largest bouquet of flowers this side of the Chelsea Flower show and with what little charm he can muster presents it to his wife who is still fuming- and by the way, he tells her, he has booked a table for two at Pierre Luigi's. What happens? The ice maiden melts and all is well-she has been propitiated.

Now of course that is a very poor illustration of what Paul is talking about, for the glorious God of the universe does not behave like some ill treated spouse that waits for us to placate him with some trinket-that is the pagan god who does that. No, this God is the very one who does the placating at great cost to himself. For what has been deeply offended is his holy character, we have lived as if he and his laws are an irrelevance and an nuisance. That sort of rebellion has to be punished. So God himself in the person of his one and only Son, Jesus steps into the breach, takes on flesh and blood and enters into our world of social disintegration, judgmental moralism and hypocritical religion. Sin is so serious that it costs a life- remember ‘the wages of sin is death’. Well, who will pay the price for my death and yours? It cant be just another human being ,that would be immoral and useless because that would be one finite sinful human being dying for another finite sinful human being-and who is going to pay for their sin? No, we need someone who is truly human, but also infinite. A man but a sinless man who has no sin of his own to pay for. And there is only one person who fits that description- Jesus Christ. On that cross, the ultimate sacrifice is made, as God’s anger is exhausted upon his Son, as he drinks to the dregs the last drop of a judgement towards a rebellious world. So God’s justice is satisfied as in some way unbeknown to us our sin is transferred onto him and he picks up the tab. And in a most amazing transfer his righteousness is transferred onto us so God can declare us forgiven and accepted children and so satisfying his passionate love for each one of us. Do you see?

Well let’s go back to the parable with which we began to see how this begins to make sense. Just imagine Chief Justice Booth turning to the two criminals in the dock and saying this: ‘ You have committed a most terrible crime. You have broken the law. You have shamed and debased yourself as human beings. But what is more you have personally hurt me, for by some strange twist of fate the young man you conspired to kill was my only son whom I loved with all of my heart. Justice must be served and if you were to be put away for the rest of your life it would be nothing more than you deserve. But, there is a little known law on the statute books which I myself helped to draft with the aid of my son, whereby I have the power to set you free by considering the penalty you deserve to have been paid by someone else willing to give it. It was my son’s last wish that if his death could save and change a life, it should be considered in this way. I therefore have the power to pronounce that the death of my son is retrospectively the penalty of your crimes-paid in full. Will you accept this? And just supposing that judge had the insight to know what was in each of their hearts-the genuineness of their professions, there are only two responses they could make. They could reject the offer and continue to be defiant rebels to the very end, taking in their own person the penalty for their wickedness. Or they could trust what the judge had said, gratefully accept the pardon and live lives which show that they have turned right round in their attitudes and beliefs, seeking to promote the same ideals as the son.

And it is precisely the same offer that God lovingly extends to you and to me tonight. One writer once put it like this: ‘ In the Cross of Christ God says to man, ‘That is where you ought to be. Jesus my Son hangs there in your stead. His tragedy is the tragedy of your life. You are the rebel who should be hanged on the gallows. But look, I suffered instead of you and because of you, because I love you in spite of what you are. My love for you is so great that I meet you there ,there on a cross. I cannot meet you anywhere else. You must meet me there by identifying yourself with the One on the cross. It is by this identification that I ,God, can meet you in him, saying to you as I say to Him, my beloved Son.’ God’s love and justice meet on the brow of that crucified King. All that troubles your conscience and shames you and offends God can be washed away without trace tonight if you come to him. How do you come to him, well, says Paul ,by faith- God justifies all those who have ‘ faith in Christ Jesus’ and so upholding his law, demonstrating that there is only one way back to himself-whether you are Jew of non- Jew, so no one is in a position to brag about his own achievements -vv 27-31.

Now you are here tonight and if the truth be known you are tired. You are tired of the pleasure seeking lifestyle which brings you no lasting pleasure. You are tired of trying to appear oh so respectable, but the thoughts that swirl around your mind reveal that your heart is but a moral cesspit which shames you. You are tired of your religion and trying to keep up with the religious Jones’s-you are tired. Am I right? Well, now is the time to stop striving and running and to pause, turn and trust in the One who hung upon a cross so that you will never ever have to face God’s anger in final judgement but only experience the warmth of his everlasting love. It doesn’t mean everything will be easy, in some way things get harder-but at least you come face to face with the One who made you and will never abandon you. So why not come to him now and be justified?

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